COLUMBUS - The sales tax increase backed by Gov. Bob Taft and the Republican-controlled legislature would be repealed under a campaign that GOP Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is launching.
Mr. Blackwell said yesterday that he will begin circulating a petition this weekend to repeal the tax increase through a voter initiative effort.
“We must do this now to get our state back on track,” said Mr. Blackwell, citing a loss of 118,000 manufacturing jobs in Ohio from March, 2002 to March, 2003. “This will require immediate reform. My goal is to bring fiscal discipline back to Ohio, and to do so before our competitiveness and opportunity for growth is irreparably damaged.”
After collecting 100 signatures of registered voters this weekend, Mr. Blackwell plans to submit the petition to the attorney general for certification next week.
Mr. Blackwell, who is Ohio's chief elections officer, said he then would announce a statewide campaign to collect at least 96,870 signatures by Dec. 20.
“The process will culminate with this ultimatum to the General Asssembly: Either repeal the sales tax increase and get spending in this state under control or I will place the tax repeal directly in the hands of outraged taxpayers on Nov. 2, 2004,” Mr. Blackwell said.
GOP legislative leaders proposed the sales tax rate increase - which Mr. Taft supported - to balance a two-year, $48.8 billion operating budget that includes $3 billion in higher taxes.
If the voters repeal the sales tax rate increase, it would expire 30 days after the November, 2004, election.
If successful, repeal of the tax increase could be a major boost to Mr. Blackwell's efforts to get the GOP nomination for governor in 2006. The other major contenders are Attorney General Jim Petro and Auditor Betty Montgomery. Neither returned calls yesterday.
But Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, lashed out at Mr. Blackwell, condemning the proposal as a “ridiculous media stunt.”
“The organizers of this petition drive have said nothing about how they plan to balance Ohio's budget in the absence of the revenues they hope to repeal,” Mr. Bennett said.
Mr. Taft believes Mr. Blackwell's proposal is a “reckless and irresponsible ploy that places our children and seniors at risk,” said Orest Holubec, the governor's secretary.
State Sen. Mark Mallory (D., Cincinnati) said if Mr. Blackwell succeeds in convincing voters to repeal the sales tax increase, “I am hopeful he has a plan to balance the budget.
“I am more interested in the secretary of state spending his time on getting these electronic voting machines in place. Nobody likes to see taxes increased, but we also have a lot of government services that need to be paid for that people don't want to give up on.”
Mr. Blackwell's proposal is an effort to show Republican voters he is the most conservative candidate in what may be a contested primary for governor in 2006, said Al Tuchfarber, director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati.
Dr. Tuchfarber said a tax repeal vote in November, 2004, could bring out more GOP voters to support President Bush, but it may motivate seniors who don't want home-care programs cut and state union members who don't want their jobs eliminated, motivating them to vote Democratic.
In 1998, Mr. Blackwell was a leading opponent of the ballot issue to raise the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent for public schools and modest property tax relief.
Legislators put the issue on the ballot in response to the Ohio Supreme Court's 1997 decision that said the state's system of funding public schools is unconstitutional.
By fighting the proposed tax increase, Mr. Blackwell defied then-Gov. George Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, and GOP legislative leaders. By a 4-to-1 margin, voters rejected the tax increase.
In 1998, one of Mr. Blackwell's allies in the anti-tax crusade was anti-tax activist Scott Pullins. But Mr. Pullins said yesterday he has concerns about Mr. Blackwell's repeal effort.
Because the issue won't be on the ballot until November, 2004 - if enough signatures are gathered - it would repeal only about seven months of the tax hike, Mr. Pullins said. That's because when legislators raised the state sales tax rate, they said it would return to 5 percent on July 1, 2005.
But Mr. Pullins and others have said the legislature could simply re-enact the tax increase.
“The only thing effective of it will be to position Ken for governor,” Mr. Pullins said.